Breaking the Waves

Poster
1996
Lars von Trier

9/10 (slow)

My wife recommended this to me one night, as she had seen it and loved it. And I’ll be honest (but please don’t tell her), I was not that enthused to see it. All I remembered about it from when it came out was seeing Emily Watson’s name thrown around at the “Academy” awards that year, and from the title I assumed it had something to do with a beach. So I was imagining some sort of “Piano”-like borefest as I sat down to watch. Happily, I was blown away instead.

It’s the first and best film in Lars von Trier´s Golden Heart Trilogy (1998´s “The Idiots” and 2000´s “Dancer in the Dark” complete the trilogy), and his first film since signing the Dogme 95 pact with director Thomas Vinterberg and other Danes. This manifesto is one of the more interesting developments in modern cinema, as it was a call for truth in movie producing. This meant that directors would rely on actual locations while filming, unable to use even minor props, and use only actual lighting and sounds, without any added sound effects or soundtracks. It’s basically hyper-realism, and it has a startling effect on the viewer even though it has been found virtually impossible to uphold for a director. Even the two originators of the idea have had to twist or neglect some of the rules to make their films work.

“Breaking the Waves” is not a true Dogme 95 film. It does not take place in the modern era and it employs certain minor visual effects at various points. But it’s close. It’s shot on a hand-held camera with a grainy film quality that feels stark and rugged. It’s a bare story, relying on emotional drama rather than external physical actions. Director von Trier tells the story of Bess McNeill (Watson), a simple, emotionally unstable and possibly insane woman in 1970s Scotland, who may or may not talk with god. She suddenly marries Jan (Stellan Skarsgaard) much to the suspicion of her community. He’s an oil rig worker who has to leave her alone for weeks at a time while at sea, which she has trouble tolerating. After praying exceptionally hard that she be reunited with him, he suffers an accident on the rig and returns home paralyzed and brain damaged.

I don’t want to give too much more away, because the viewer will benefit from knowing less. Let’s just say that Bess feels guilty and wants to do whatever she can to cure Jan, and both Jan and God himself give her some unconventional ideas on how to go about doing this. The slow build-up of drama and tension leads to one of the more powerful climaxes and resolutions I’ve had the pleasure to witness. The entire film ends up being a mystical — and indeed subversive — meditation on faith and religious hypocrisy.

It only works well because of the Dogme 95-influenced style. There are graphic images and absolutely naked acting performances, but von Trier doesn’t let his audience hide behind soft lighting or a contrived musical score. The whole thing is raw, and it’s uncomfortable, but if you can tolerate it for two and a half hours the payoff is tremendous. It’s a long film, and it feels long, but it’s also staggeringly beautiful.

The people at Cannes (who have at least a modicum of sense, unlike the “Academy”) saw fit to award “Breaking the Waves” the 1996 Grand Jury prize. If you like Scorsese, knowing that he thought this was one of the 10 best films of the decade (in agreement with Roger Ebert) might convince you to see it. Lars von Trier is one of the most brilliant directors alive, and this is arguably his best film. If you are in the mood for a powerful and emotionally satisfying (but not manipulative) movie experience, or you’re interested in dabbling in non-U.S./mainstream films, this is an excellent place to start.

23 March 2010

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